“Excuse me lady, do you have any spare change?”
This was the first thing he said to me, on 56th street in New York City, right round the corner from Broadway, on a sunny September day.
And when I heard him, I didn’t really hear him. His words were part of the clatter, like a car horn or someone yelling for a cab. They were, you could say, just noise—the kind of nuisance New Yorkers learn to tune out. So I walked right by him, as if he wasn’t there.
But then, just a few yards past him, I stopped.
And then—and I still don’t know why I did this—I came back.
I came back and I looked at him and I realized he was a child. Earlier, out of the corner of my eye, I had noticed he was young. But now, looking at him, he was just a baby—tiny body, sticks for arms, big round eyes. He wore a burgundy sweatshirt that was smudged and frayed, and ratty burgundy sweatpants to match. He had scuffed white sneakers with untied laces, and his fingernails were dirty. But his eyes were bright and there was a general sweetness about him. He was, I would soon learn, 11 years old.
He stretched his palm towards me and he asked again: “Excuse me lady, do you have any spare change? I am hungry.”
What I said in response may have surprised him, but it really shocked me.
If you’re hungry, I said, I’ll take you to McDonalds and buy you lunch.
“Can I have a cheeseburger?” he asked.
Yes, I said.
“How about a Big Mac?”
That’s okay, too.
“How about a Diet Coke?”
Yes, that’s okay.
“Well, how about a thick chocolate shake and French fries?”
I told him he could have anything he wanted. And then I asked him if I could join him for lunch.
He thought about it for a second.
“Sure,” he finally said.
We had lunch together that day, at McDonalds.
And after that, we got together every Monday.
For the next 150 Mondays.
His name is Maurice, and he changed my life.
Looking back all these years later, I believe there was a strong, unseen connection that pulled me back to Maurice. It’s something I call an invisible thread. It is, as the old Chinese proverb tells us, a thing that connects two people who are destined to meet, regardless of time and place and circumstance. Some legends call it the red string of fate, others the thread of destiny. It is, I believe, what brought Maurice and I to the same stretch of sidewalk in a vast, teeming city—just two people out of eight million, somehow connected, somehow meant to be friends.
Our story is the story of a very unlikely friendship, and of the unexpected ways we learn what matters in our lives. It is the story of how two people who lived just two blocks apart—yet came from wildly different worlds—somehow touched each other’s hearts and profoundly changed each other’s lives. It is also a story of letting go—of crippling fears, of family burdens, of expectations and limitations—and being open to the sweet, unplanned blessings of life. I guess you could say it is the story of how one woman learned to live.
And, of course, it is the story of Maurice Mazyck, a gutsy, disadvantaged boy who beat unimaginable odds to survive. Maurice, I would soon learn, lived in a kind of desperate squalor I could never have fathomed, and which I doubt most people in this prosperous country can truly comprehend. There was no clear path for him out of his hellish reality, no reasonable hope he could escape the fate that consumed the other men in his family. At the tender age of 11, Maurice seemed doomed.
Except that he wasn’t. Not by a long shot.
Maurice had, inside him, some miraculous reserve of goodness and strength, a fierce will to be special. Whatever it is that made me notice him on that street corner so many years ago is clearly something that cannot be extinguished, no matter how relentless the forces aligned against it. Some may call it spirit. Some may call it heart. Whatever it is, it gave Maurice remarkable strength and courage and resiliency. Despite his terrible lot in life he was able not only to survive and persevere, but, in a way, to teach me the meaning of my own life.
So there we were, the baby-faced panhandler and the overscheduled professional, two people with absolutely nothing in common, except, we would eventually discover, a powerful, shared desire—the desire to feel safe in a family. We never formerly agreed to meet every Monday—it just evolved into that. Nor did we know how long our journey would last when we set out on it. I am sure we both recognized it was an unusual arrangement, and I know each of us had to learn to trust the other. But in the end we wound up meeting at least once a week for three straight years, and hundreds of times after that. What led me to make Maurice such an integral part of my life—something many of my friends strongly warned me not to do? And what led Maurice to believe in me, when so many adults in his life had let him down? Our friendship, to say the least, was a mysterious, uncommon thing. But what I do know is that my days with Maurice were a gift, a blessing, in some ways even a miracle.
Look, neither of us is a superhero, nor even especially virtuous. When we met we were just two people with complicated pasts and fragile dreams. But somehow we found each other, and we became friends.
And that, you will see, made all the difference for us both.